Chicago Theater Review: A CLASS ACT (Porchlight Music Theatre at Theater Wit)

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by Ruth Smerling on September 6, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

ONE NERDY, COMPULSIVE,
AND SINGULAR SENSATION

The Porchlight Theatre opens its 18th season at cozy Theatre Wit with a musical about musicals: the uncanny A Class Act, which pays tribute to Edward Kleban, known primarily as the lyricist for A Chorus Line. As it turns out, Kleban, despite his roaring success with the 1977 Tony-winner, was the least likely man on the planet to write a play, much less a blockbuster musical.

Ruth Smerling's Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's A CLASS ACT at Theater Wit in Chicago

A Class Act is the brainchild of both Kleban’s longtime companion Linda Kline and his good friend Lonny Price. To comply with Kleban’s will, they combined the truckload of unpublished lyrics and music and wrote the book as a memorial service held for Kleban at the Shubert Theatre, where A Chorus Line opened. As the guests arrive and tell bitter and sweet stories about Kleban (Bill Larkin), who died of cancer at 48, he suddenly shows up in the theater, where the great love of his life Sophie (Tina Gluschenko), helps him flashback to how he met all these people that love him so dearly, despite his many quirks.

In his early adult life, Kleban was notoriously paranoid and actually had to be hospitalized. Part of this therapy involved routinely playing the piano; in the process, he began writing both lyrics and original music. Gradually, he was released from the vise grip of phobias — elevators, hair out of place, death from nuclear holocaust — and into a new life in the theater.

Ruth Smerling's Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's A CLASS ACT at Theater Wit in Chicago

Despite the success of A Chorus Line — which began in a musical theater workshop taught by his mentor, Lehman Engel (Michael Glenn), the rest of his work received very little recognition. His mental illness still lurked, but was sufficiently manageable. Still, the rigors of show business left him alienated and rejected. Many adored him, but he was notoriously difficult to work with, forever walking out on people and vowing to never speak to them again. (Even with all his peculiarities, Kleban was dedicated to the art of the musical and left behind a foundation which grants annual awards of $100,000 to American musical writers.)

Ruth Smerling's Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's A CLASS ACT at Theater Wit in Chicago

As the confused man still in limbo, Bill Larkin is indefatigable, unconventional, and almost eerie in bringing Kleban’s compulsiveness to life — the same qualities that made Kleban so engaging and endearing to his friends. The impeccably well-cast ensemble plays multiple roles and sounds amazing; with musical director Beckie Menzie accompanying on piano, they deliver almost 30 songs, many of which are gorgeous and will no doubt be heard for the first time. Sharriese Hamilton is dignified as Felicia, Kleban’s boss at Columbia Records; John Francisco switches effectively between best friend Charlie and director/choreographer Michael Bennett; the spunky Jessica Joy is Mona, one of Kleban’s many love affairs; Dana Tretta is his final significant other Lucy; and Zach Spound ensures that scenes with Marvin Hamlisch, the recently deceased composer of A Chorus Line, are indelible.

Ruth Smerling's Stage and Cinema review of Porchlight's A CLASS ACT at Theater Wit in Chicago

Because A Class Act is no mere trunk song revue and does not shy away from Kleban’s alienating quirkiness, you may find yourself relating to this character, one who is desperate to both connect with people and create, but often ends up in his own way. Under the tight lead of director/choreographer Stacey Flaster, this is not just a show for musical theater aficionados; it is emotionally-charged, funny, and even moving; it’s a fearless journey into the process of making a great musical, and a celebration of Ed Kleban — flaws and imperfections included — who left behind some incredible songs.

photos by Jeremy Rill

A Class Act
Porchlight Music Theatre at Theater Wit
ends on October 7, 2012
for tickets, call 773-975-8150 or visit Theater Wit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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